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In Kendall Square, architects compete to redefine the laboratory

Ipsen’s office in Cambridge has amenities such as a bamboo garden and plenty of seating.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Ipsen’s office in Cambridge has amenities such as a bamboo garden and plenty of seating.

This story was produced by Stat, a national publication from Boston Globe Media Partners that will launch online this fall with coverage of health, medicine, and life sciences. Learn more and sign up for Stat's morning newsletter at Statnews.com.

Starbucks in the lobby? Private gym and lounges? Organic cafeteria? Convenient access to the nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer?

Check, check, check, and check.

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Such amenities and design features are the new normal in the Kendall Square biotech hub as firms expand, renovate, and relocate. Company executives — eager to attract employees, increase productivity, and foster collaboration — demand hip but functional workplaces, and that has created an arms race among architects seeking their business.

“There’s more competition for these projects than there might have been 15 years ago,” said Jim Collins, a principal at Payette. “Each firm is trying to understand how to get a slight edge. As much as there’s a lot of work, there’s never enough work for all those that want it.”

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In the last five years, more than 4 million square feet of floor space has been completed in Kendall Square, according to the Kendall Square Association. Another 3 million square feet of commercial and residential space is projected to be added in the next decade, and that doesn’t include the big Volpe transportation center site, which the federal government wants to redevelop.

All that space must be meticulously designed, accommodating everything from robotic arms to coffee carts.

In recent years, Boston-area architectural firms have worked to redefine modern laboratory facilities. Following the lead of Silicon Valley tech giants, which years ago recognized the power of creating inviting workplaces, area biotech companies use architecture as a way to attract young talent.

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It’s the “Apple and Google effect,” said Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a principal at the firm NBBJ — creating environments where employees “wish they could work 24 hours a day.”

In the lobby of 650 Kendall St., occupied by Ipsen and Baxalta, the Cafe ArtScience serves meals prepared using scientific techniques and machinery. Employees at Biogen’s 225 Binney St. building, completed in 2013 as part of the company’s carbon-neutral campus, have access to traditional amenities, such as an in-house gym and child care. But they also have access to top executives, thanks to a totally open floor plan — no offices, not even for the chief executive.

Another look at the bamboo garden in Ipsen's office.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Another look at the bamboo garden in Ipsen's office.

The Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research will feature a similar open layout at its new Massachusetts Avenue complex but will also offer “escape pods” where scientists can find quiet and solitude, said its president, Dr. Mark Fishman. The buildings, set to open this year, will also house a dinosaur skeleton and neon quotations from Charles Darwin.

To gain an advantage, architecture firms such as Perkins+Will have hired scientists as laboratory planners. They work closely with researchers to assess their scientific needs and help design more efficient spaces.

Jeannie Thacker started her career as a laboratory scientist. But after facilitating several lab relocations, she realized she had a knack for helping scientists plan and arrange lab equipment. She works as a senior associate at the architecture firm and said one of her greatest attributes is the ability to “speak scientist.”

“Typical architects don’t understand what it’s like to be in the lab,” Thacker said.

When designing spaces for hazardous research projects, for instance, some architects might forget to consider the protective safety gear researchers are required to wear, Thacker said. This gear is hot and restricts movement. Lab space in these areas, therefore, must be designed with enough ventilation and space.

‘Each firm is trying to understand how to get a slight edge. As much as there’s a lot of work, there’s never enough work for all those that want it.’

Jim Collins, principal at Payette 
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Other considerations include positioning bathrooms and water coolers. Scientists might only have a few minutes between experiments, so Thacker said it’s impractical to expect them to travel far from their work stations.

“I think that’s something that most people wouldn’t consider when they plan a lab space,” she said.

Erik Mollo-Christensen, a principal at Tsoi/Kobus, noted the difficulty in choosing the best location for offices. Researchers who put their offices in their labs have to comply with higher safety requirements, whereas researchers located away from their lab might feel isolated or less productive.

And when the scientists aren’t happy, workplace tensions can quickly surface.

During construction of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington, Conn. — completed in October 2014 — senior leadership called for an open, transparent floor plan, despite the objections of some researchers who worried it could affect their concentration. Tsoi/Kobus designed the space to include glass doors and large windows overlooking the lab space. They later learned that some scientists had taped up newspapers to conceal these spaces.

But true uproar ensued when researchers learned the lab had prohibited the installation of espresso machines in the private offices.

To promote collaboration, the leadership had decided it would be better (and more energy efficient) to install a centralized coffee stand, where researchers could meet and discuss their work.

Another design challenge is that scientists’ equipment needs change quickly as their research proceeds and technology advances — faster than a lab can be built, in some cases. Therefore, Mollo-Christensen said an emerging trend is to design spaces with modular units that can be easily adapted to advances in science. Novartis, for instance, designed a “click-and-play” system of modular desks and workbenches for its new labs, to allow easy reconfiguration of workspaces.

As developers bid on a slew of projects around Kendall Square, they also have their eyes on other areas, especially as rents rise in Kendall. Some wonder how much longer development can continue before the area reaches capacity.

Few Boston architects focused on life sciences see their practices slowing down, however. Projects from around the world fill the mailbox at many top firms as other cities attempt to replicate both the science and design of Kendall Square.

“Traveling out of Boston is not a bad place to travel out of in this market,” Payette’s Collins said. “We’re coming from a place that’s known for this kind of work.” 

Ipsen’s office in Cambridge is home to informational graphic panels, among other amenities such as the Cafe ArtScience, which serves meals prepared using scientific techniques and machinery.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Ipsen’s office in Cambridge is home to informational graphic panels, among other amenities such as the Cafe ArtScience, which serves meals prepared using scientific techniques and machinery.

Ian Dillingham can be reached at ian.dillingham@statnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @IDillingham. Follow STAT on Twitter @statnews.
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